Monday, June 17, 2013

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


Recently I was reading for review a book of anecdotes about the book-collecting trade, when I came across a passage that chilled my heart.

The book was rare-book-seller Rick Gekoski’s Lost, Stolen or Shredded (Profile Books, 2013), in which the author narrates tales of literary works and art-works which have somehow gone missing or been destroyed.

One of his chapters deals with the diaries of Philip Larkin.

As Larkin lay in hospital with a terminal illness, he instructed his secretary to destroy his voluminous private diaries. She did as she was told, meaning that said diaries never became part of an auction lot or wound up in the archives of a wealthy American university. As Gekoski notes, Larkin was probably prudent to have his diaries destroyed because (if comments from his friends are any guide) they probably consisted in large part of his masturbation fantasies.

When I was younger, and first encountering Larkin in such anthologies as George MacBeth’s Poetry 1900 to 1965, Larkin was seen as a pre-eminently, and even severely, intellectual poet. But later I was aware that, especially after his death, it became common knowledge that the never-married heterosexual Larkin had a taste for pornography and in his private correspondence expressed many grumpy reactionary views which right-thinking liberals would regard as “inappropriate”. He routinely referred to “wogs”, “niggers” etc. and stood for cricket and warm beer and the roast beef of old England.

And so we come to the paragraph in Gekoski’s book, which chilled my heart. Here it is:

 “Following the publication of the Larkin letters in 1992, various critics were duly offended. Tom Paulin, who has deep reserves of indignation, put the case clearly, describing the contents as ‘a distressing and in many ways revolting compilation which perfectly reveals and conceals the sewer under the national monument Larkin became.’ Joining the chorus of disapprobation, Professor Lisa Jardine, of the University of London, described their author as a ‘casual, habitual racist and an easy misogynist’, observing with some pleasure that ‘we don’t tend to teach Larkin much now in my department of English. The little Englandism he celebrates sits uneasily within our revised curriculum.’ Even Alan Bennett, himself capable of a bit of smutty puckishness, remarked that Larkin looked a bit like a rapist, and noted unsettling resemblances to John Reginald Halliday Christie, the Rillington Place serial killer.” (p.116)

Tom Paulin’s comment is merely rhetoric and Alan Bennett’s is plainly nonsense. (What, pray tell, does a rapist look like? Perhaps a bit like you, dear reader.) But of these comments, the worst is Lisa Jardine’s. Jardine rejoices that “we don’t tend to teach Larkin much now in my department of English” and that his values “sit uneasily within our revised curriculum”. What she is, in effect, saying is that her English department teaches texts on the criterion of the acceptability of the author as a human being; rather than on the merit of the texts as pieces of writing. Yes, there is indeed some “Little Englandism” in the later published poems of Larkin (especially in the collection High Windows, with its particularly inane title poem). But most of his brash prejudices were expressed in his private correspondence and are not part of his published poetical work. To wipe away Larkin like this is to pretend that he didn’t write some of the best – and most significant – English-language poems of the mid-20th century.

I do not wish to confuse two quite separate issues here. Commenting on values expressed in a piece of literature is a perfectly valid (indeed essential) function of literary criticism. I recall an angry novelist once telling me that my review of the novelist’s work showed that I was “a moralist – not a critic”. As the novel in question made all manner of moral statements of its own (about people’s values, attitudes and the organization of society), I fail to see how the two roles can be separated – unless we adopt an extraordinarily narrow view of what is meant by morals. This is not, however, an invitation to ignore the quality of a piece of writing because we disagree with its expressed values.

But this is quite different from commenting on the values expressed by an author outside his/her published work. And certainly it has nothing to do with praising or deploring a body of writing on the basis of what we think of the writer’s personal life and habits.

            For this reason, I give this week’s “Something Old” the exasperated heading “How Often Does This Have to be Said?”, as I have tried to make this point often enough before on this blog. Good writing is not necessarily produced by pleasant people. Pleasant and even admirable people may be mediocre writers. What I am saying goes against the cult of the literary biography, but it still has to be said.

            Let us assume that Philip Larkin was a racist, misogynist, reactionary and habitual wanker. (I’m not saying this is proven. I’m just saying “let’s assume”.) In other words, let’s assume that Philip Larkin was as bad in his way as you are in your’s hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère [et ma soeur]. This would still not diminish or take away from the brilliance of Church Going, The Whitsun Weddings, Toads, Vers de Societe and An Arundel Tomb. If, in 1992, Lisa Jardine and her department couldn’t see this, it doesn’t prove that their “revised curriculum” recognised quality. It simply means they had a tin ear.

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